Straight, No Chaser
What musicians talk about between gigs.
Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By TED GIOIA
Other stories are harder to believe. Did Billy Bauer really teach blind pianist Lennie Tristano how to drive a car? (Reportedly, Bauer concluded his account of the event with the blasé assessment: "He was a really bad pupil.") Did Lester Young really refuse to play a record date for Count Basie because it took place on the 13th of the month? Did Chet Baker really say, when he was introduced to Mussolini's son (jazz pianist Romano Mussolini), "Oh, yeah, man, it was a drag about your dad"? I certainly hope that all of these stories are true, but I have my doubts.
For my part, I might be convinced that legendary bandleader Fate Marable fired musicians by threatening them with an axe--a real-life "getting the axe," as Crow points out. But Crow also insists that the band would play "There'll Be Some Changes Made" during these ritual dismissals--which makes the story sound perhaps too good to be true. But I'm not complaining. Like Zen stories or Texas tall tales, these jazz anecdotes have an enduring value that transcends questions about their historical accuracy. They capture the spirit of the jazz life, even if the details themselves sometimes seem overly dramatized.
And some of these accounts are hardly meant to be believed, but are merely passed on in the sheer spirit of playfulness. Such is the tale of the jazz fan walking into a London nightclub during a song and asking a bar patron about the piece being played on stage.
"W.C. Handy?" he inquires.
"Sure, it's just outside, to the left of the stairway."
My favorite story here tells of the portly clarinetist Irving Fazola getting stuck in a chair at Horn & Hardart's Automat restaurant before an important concert. Bandleader Al Rose rushes to the scene to find his soloist jammed tight in a seat, incapable of dislodging himself after having eaten 36 hamburgers. Despite the efforts of the manager and two strong busboys, Fazola could not be pried lose.
Rose continues the story: "So two ambulance attendants, the two busboys, the manager, and I carefully loaded him, with the chair, into the ambulance, down to the Academy of Music, and unloaded him carefully right at center stage of the auditorium. . . . During the first half of the concert, Faz kept his seat--playing magnificently, but not standing for his solos, as was customary."
Ah, but the story continues. At intermission, the clarinetist was pulled loose and completed the concert with aplomb--although afterwards he insisted on celebrating by (you guessed it) going out for hamburgers.
Certainly this is an odd little book, but it has earned its place on the bookshelves of jazz lovers. I am reminded of Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, which became a classic simply by collecting several hundred pages of snide critical put-downs. Crow has done something similar here. Jazz Anecdotes is the next best thing to hanging out with the band after the gig.
Ted Gioia is author of The History of Jazz and the forthcoming Work Songs.